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What the heck is nutrient density and why should I care?

Hey there! Ever heard of a nutritarian? Even though spellcheck doesn’t agree, it’s a word and a diet! A nutritarian’s goal is to eat the foods that are the most nutrient dense, or nutritious.

Nutrient density looks at the nutritional profile of a food item and the calories it contains. The higher the nutrient density, the healthier the food is. For example, 40 calories from a cup of kale and 40 calories from a cookie are not the same (sorry folks, a calorie is not just a calorie!). Kale will provide you with tons of vitamins, minerals and fiber in those 40 calories that the cookie lacks. Make sense?

Some of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet are green leafy vegetables. Can you guess why? They are super high in fiber and nutrients like vitamin C, K, A. And they also contain  minerals like magnesium, iron and calcium and virtually no calories.

Kale and Thin Mints, an Unlikely Pair

Besides the green packaging, kale and thin mints don’t really have much in common.

1 cup of cooked kale has 36 calories and over 800% of the daily recommended value (RDV) of vitamin K, plus almost 100% of the RDV for vitamin C and A. 36 calories of kale also contains 5-10% of the RDV for calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, fiber, vit E and B6, B3 and B1. Not bad!  36 calories and a ton of nutrients!

In comparison, one thin mint girl scout cookie has 40 calories and 1.5% of the RDV for iron.

You can see from this example that the nutrient density of kale is way higher than that of a thin mint. But that’s a kinda obvious comparison. Even certain vegetables are more nutrient dense than others. Here’s a cool graph from the CDC rating 41 different vegetables in nutrient density (scroll to the bottom of the link to see the chart.). I also like Dr. Furman’s chart which you can see below. A rating of 1000 means you’re getting the most bang for your buck. Here you can see that leafy greens have the highest score and the most nutrients per calorie.

What’s the bottom line?

The point is, a calorie is not just a calorie, and the healthiest way to eat is to make sure that the calories you are taking in are from nutrient dense foods. Eating nutrient dense foods aids the process of losing weight and maintaining weight loss, lowering blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. Fiber found in nutrient dense foods also helps keep the digestive system healthy, reducing your risk for certain kinds of cancer. And the truth is, all whole foods (meaning foods found in their original unprocessed form) are nutrient dense. So shop the periphery of the market where the nutrient dense whole foods live, and pick up some leafy greens while you’re at it!

Dr. Fuhrman’s Nutrient Density Index

Sample Nutrient/Calorie Density Scores
Kale 1000 Sunflower Seeds 64
Collard Greens 1000 Kidney Beans 64
Mustard Greens 1000 Green Peas 63
Watercress 1000 Cherries 55
Swiss Chard 895 Pineapple 54
Bok Choy 865 Apple 53
Spinach 707 Mango 53
Arugula 604 Peanut Butter 51
Romaine 510 Corn 45
Brussels Sprouts 490 Pistachio Nuts 37
Carrots 458 Oatmeal 36
Broccoli Rabe 455 Shrimp 36
Cabbage 434 Salmon 34
Broccoli 340 Eggs 31
Cauliflower 315 Milk, 1% 31
Bell Peppers 265 Walnuts 30
Asparagus 205 Bananas 30
Mushrooms 238 Whole Wheat Bread 30
Tomato 186 Almonds 28
Strawberries 182 Avocado 28
Sweet Potato 181 Brown Rice 28
Zucchini 164 White Potato 28
Artichoke 145 Low Fat Plain Yogurt 28
Blueberries 132 Cashews 27
Iceburg Lettuce 127 Chicken Breast 24
Grapes 119 Ground Beef, 85% lean 21
Pomegranates 119 Feta Cheese 20
Cantaloupe 118 White Bread 17
Onions 109 White Pasta 16
Flax Seeds 103 French Fries 12
Orange 98 Cheddar Cheese 11
Edamame 98 Apple Juice 11
Cucumber 87 Olive Oil 10
Tofu 82 Vanilla Ice Cream 9
Sesame Seeds 74 Corn Chips 7
Lentils 72 Cola 1
Peaches 65

 

Nutrient Scoring Method*
To determine the ANDI scores, an equal-calorie serving of each food was evaluated. The following nutrients were included in the evaluation: fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, vitamin A, beta carotene, alpha carotene, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin, vitamin E, vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, folate, vitamin B12, choline, vitamin K, phytosterols, glucosinolates, angiogenesis inhibitors, organosulfides, aromatase inhibitors, resistant starch, resveratrol plus ORAC score. ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) is a measure of the antioxidant or radical scavenging capacity of a food. For consistency, nutrient quantities were converted from their typical measurement conventions (mg, mcg, IU) to a percentage of their Dietary Reference Intake (DRI).

 

 

 

 

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